If Truth be Told

lines, photograph

“That’s part of what I love about abstracts.It’s not the symbolism; it’s not the metaphor. It’s the simple chord of tonalities… Such tones just make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.”

– Brooks Jensen

I also love abstraction but have sort of a love-hate relationship with it. The quote from Jensen comes from an essay he wrote that states categorically that abstract photographs do not sell (he concludes that if you do them, you’ll have to do it for yourself). This has also been my experience. It’s too bad…

I suspect abstraction in all art forms can make it less accessible to many people. Think of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, 20th century atonal music, your most recent trip to any Museum of Modern Art… I happen to enjoy a lot of that type of thing (or I used to, as I get older I sometimes don’t have the energy to unravel the tones in the chord).

Photography bears perhaps an extra burden when it comes to abstraction because, by it’s very nature, photographs have a quality of verisimilitude – the quality of truth. Unlike any other art form, photography is always of something out there in the world. It cannot completely divorce itself from that pedigree, no matter how much interpretive license the photographer takes. Usually the first thing a viewer asks about an abstract photograph is “What is that a photograph of?”. They try to relate it back to the object that was actually in front of the camera when the shutter clicked.

A good abstract photograph actually takes advantage of this – it relies on the close juxtaposition of the object the photograph is of and the degree to which that object is somehow hidden behind the chord of tonalities Jensen refers to.

But an abstract photograph can never completely let go of what it is a photograph of. I wonder to what degree the weight of that underlying thing-ness undermines the abstract-ness of the piece?

8 responses to “If Truth be Told

  1. I don’t know. I think an abstract work of art, whether a painting, photograph, or sculpture, is better when “thing-ness” is part of it, however subtle.

    Trying to play catch-up on your blog — it’s always a joy to read.

  2. Sad but true– I used to paint watercolor landscapes and flowers and still lifes– and sold a LOT of them– course I also marketed and was in many galleries and did art fairs and so on… but slowly moved out of realism and into abstraction and non-objective and my work sold less and less so dropped all the art fairs one by one and now my focus and emphasis has moved away from selling and into THE WORK itself– I am happier but ‘not so rich’ 🙂
    about abstract photographs– I don’t much about your photography world– I find them interesting — it is intriguing to try and figure out what the image is upclose– but the general public does not want to think too much– they like the landscape spelled out for them.

    • Donna

      There is such a complex relationship between what artists want and what their audience wants. It reminds me of the relationship between parent and child or husband and wife – a swirling vortex of competing agendas that neither side wants to forfeit.

  3. Bob, in answer to your question about the thingness of my work, no. I start out in a totally non-objective direction and usually stay on that track, because it’s gratifying for me to work that way. But I still wrestle with that whole question of connecting with a wider audience.

  4. The complex relationship you allude to between the artist and the audience in your answer to Donna, Bob, is how I see things between the ‘thingness’ and the ‘abstraction’. It is that battle between the two, the former willing you to see what’s real, the latter taking you into the unknown, that gives the photograph its life, and depending on which way the battle is going, its varying degrees of abstraction. Perhaps it is this very turmoil that gives what is in essence an inert piece of work, vibrancy and life.

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